A sermon for the third Sunday after Easter by Mother Katie
“Repent therefore and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out” urges Peter in our reading from Acts.
Whilst in our Gospel Jesus explains that repentance is at the heart of everything to do with cross and resurrection – and it is repentance and the forgiveness of sins which is to be preached to all the nations.
This isn’t what we primarily focus on preaching today though.
I think we don’t mention sin and repentance nearly enough – and I know why – God’s love and God’s peace are so much nicer to focus on! But I think we risk losing something essential if we do not face the challenge of looking at repentance on a regular basis.
In days gone by this temptation to leave out sin and repentance was safeguarded by sermons being written centrally for the clergy and local clergy were tasked with just reading them out.
In the 16th century Homily 19 was entitled “An Homilie of Repentance and True Reconciliation unto God.”
In it congregations are encouraged to recognise 4 stages of true repentance – and I think they have stood the test of time and are worth providing the framework for a sermon today – though I will add my own take on this.
The first is what is called “Contrition of heart” a phrase taken from Psalm 51:17 which says “the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart O God you will not despise.”
So we can’t just say sorry but we need to be sorry.
The liturgy alone won’t save us.
Words are not enough – for repentance is first and foremost a heart exercise. We might need to be a little broken before we can be made whole. Like a clay pot on a potter’s wheel there is a formation process in repentance – we change our shape and direction.
To repent literally means to change direction – or to turn around. It isn’t something you can say and carry on walking in the same direction – it is a stop sign in the road – urging us to turn back. Like the prodigal in the pig pen we need to come to the end of ourselves and stop walking away and start the humbling journey back to our Father.
Once we’ve got to that stage of really wanting to turn back – then we can introduce words. The second requirement of forgiveness the 16th century sermon urges is “An unfeigned confession and acknowledging of our sins before God.” This is taken from Psalm 32, given the title the Joy of Forgiveness.
It is worth reading in full:
The Psalm encourages us that words of repentance have the power to heal and liberate us – to bring us into God’s steadfast love – like the arms of the Father who meets the prodigal and there we find safety – a hiding place – and guidance which will lead us on new paths – and with a promised destination of joy. It is a Psalm worth going away and sitting with. Meditating on what God might be saying to you.
The 3rd part of repentance is a really interesting one. It says we must “apprehend and behold God’s promises of pardon and forgiveness.” Pastoral experience tells me this is the hardest stage of repentance and forgiveness – really believing we are forgiven.
It is surprising how much joy is lost because despite being forgiven by God we refuse to forgive ourselves. As if our opinion mattered more!! Set free by our Saviour we choose to remain imprisoned by our own bars. It is not easy but we really have to take hold of the gift of grace for us to experience the full fruit of forgiveness.
If I try and give this present to Elizabeth (small child) and she does not grab it for herself she will never be able to open it and receive it.
But if she grabs it – she may open it – and find within it treasure!
(Elizabeth opens the present and finds chocolate)
And more than enough for us – enough for sharing with others too! Will you share all that with your family Elizabeth? She nods and smiles.
We need to take hold of our forgiveness as Elizabeth took hold of the gift.
We need to really trust that if we are sorry in our heart – and have confessed with our mouth – we are forgiven. And that we are not just free to move on but in order to complete repentance we must move on – we can’t continue to live behind bars of our own making.
As the fourth part of repentance – the 16th century congregation were told – is “amendment of life which shows the fruits of repentance.”
In other words things need to be different. We need to change.
We need to show and share and live grace.
St John Climacus said “Repentance is daughter of hope and the renunciation of despair.” (The Ladder of Divine Ascent)
A life of hope – for others and ourselves is the fruit of repentance.
So, I am not sure why we avoid it so avidly in our preaching today – for it is not a gloomy subject at all – rather it is about leaving behind all the bad and giving birth to the new.
And repentance should never leave us feeling bad about ourselves – quite the opposite – it should free us to become our best selves – and find the true direction and purpose of our lives.
As the poet Henry Vaughan puts it in his poem the Revival –
“And here, in the dust and dirt, oh here…
The lilies of his love appear!”
So let’s not be afraid to face our shadow selves and to repent of all that God shows us needs to be amended in life – and then let’s trust him for the joy that blossoms from such times – courageously walking and growing with him – and letting grace transform us.